L.A.‘s Measure EE defeat: What happened and what’s next

By Larry Sand
June 11, 2019

LAUSD parcel tax measure goes down, and the district is still in charge…for now. 

If you live in Los Angeles, the thud you heard last Tuesday was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s parcel tax measure crashing to earth. Its goal was to raise $500 million annually over a 12-year period. Thus, owners of large apartment buildings and commercial properties would have been especially hard-hit, as the tax assessed would be determined by the size of the lot.

The school district and the United Teachers of Los Angeles were fairly confident of passage because people generally sympathized with teachers during their six-day strike in January, and a recent poll showed that 82 percent of Angelinos think we need to invest more in education. Also, while the final numbers will not be released till next month, the measure’s proponents outspent the naysayers by a wide margin, with unions spending very heavily. UTLA alone donated $500,000 to the cause.

But the measure, which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, didn’t even come close. In fact, it only received 46.3 percent approval. So what could have gone wrong?

Perhaps the public has awakened to the fact the LAUSD is being run by Keystone Kops wannabees. The district’s oh-so-tired excuse for not properly educating children is that it doesn’t have enough money. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Los Angeles is ranked seventh in per-pupil spending of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, coming in ahead of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, et al.

LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner has been especially bitter over the loss. He suggested that the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which  lobbied against the tax, didn’t really care about “kids of poverty and kids of color.”

UTLA has been bipolar since Tuesday’s shellacking. In a postmortem, the union petulantly claimed that education in L.A. is, of course, “chronically underfunded” and railed about “corporate profits” and “rich people.” (It’s interesting to note that one of the union’s favorite billionaire punching bags, Eli Broad, spent heavily in favor of the measure.) At the same time, on the night of the defeat, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl danced through the valley of denial, insisting, “We’re going to celebrate having brought the city of Los Angeles together….”

Brought L.A. together?! Yeah, the people came together alright, because enough of them saw that the parcel tax was nothing more than a taxpayer mugging.

While many Angelinos voted against the tax simply because LAUSD can’t be trusted, others voted no because of the utterly incompetent – or maybe deceptive – ways the district handled the measure. The first eye-opener came in February. After the initial draft of the ballot measure prohibited the use of the tax dollars for “funding long-term healthcare or pension liabilities,” the updated version quietly eliminated that language and replaced it with “legal settlements and liabilities.”

The second bit of malfeasance was “Garagegate.” The LAUSD board approved the ballot’s language on February 28th, specifying the tax would be on all “habitable main square footage.” However, without getting board approval, Austin Beutner changed the language on March 11th to “the square footage of all buildings or structures erected on or affixed to the land.” This change would have seriously affected homeowners with garages and especially owners of large apartment complexes.

Needless to say, Beutner’s action prompted confusion and anger. So, on May 7th, the school board convened and reaffirmed the original language, which excluded parking structures. But since the mail-in ballots had already been sent out, a red flag went up and a lawsuit was filed.

There was also bewilderment about the so-called senior exemption. The ballot guide stated that “An exemption from payment of the parcel tax may be granted on any parcel owned by one or more persons 65 years of age or over who occupies the parcel as a principal in residence, upon application for exemption….”

Seniors may be exempt? Okay, then they may not be exempt. Way too ambiguous. Also, the district sent exemption applications to seniors before the election, asking for all sorts of very personal information. Why do this before the vote? To propound its incompetence, LAUSD sent many exemption notices to non-LA residents.

Additionally, LAUSD didn’t win any taxpayer friends when it used school district (taxpayer) dollars to push the measure, which, if passed, would raise taxes on taxpayers. Beutner made an “informational” video about the measure and sent out emails to all district employees urging them to vote and to encourage students, families and community members to “make their voices heard.” The message included a postscript urging employees to go online and sign a data-gathering “pledge to vote.” The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association justifiably called for an investigation into “improper campaign spending.”

All these gaffes, whether due to incompetence or dishonesty, showed voters that the school district could not be trusted. At all. While EE is dead and the aforementioned lawsuit will not go forth, another battle is looming. The so-called “split roll” tax initiative has qualified for the 2020 ballot. Under the proposal, “all non-residential properties will be reassessed to 2020 values and be reassessed every three years thereafter.” In brief, this initiative would undo Prop. 13 protections for businesses, while individual property owners would not be affected.

If successful, the ramifications of this initiative for California could be severe. A March, 2012 Pepperdine University study found that adopting such a “split-roll” property tax would result in a loss of nearly 400,000 jobs and $72 billion in economic activity in the first five years.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County has been monitoring LAUSD and threatening a takeover if the district can’t prove its solvency over the next three years. As disclosed in LA School Report, “District projections show L.A. Unified spending $577 million more than it will take in next year alone and falling some $700 million in the red by 2021-22.”

Los Angeles County’s Superintendent of Schools, Debra Duardo, expressed disappointment over EE’s failure to pass and added, “Put simply, LAUSD needs to stop spending more than it receives from the state and federal government.”

With a teachers union that is always demanding more, and a district that just can’t say no, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of LAUSD.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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